Stress Management Starts with Understanding Why You’re Stressed

Young worker in button-down shirt with short hair sits with hand over face, diagram chart held out with other hand

• By Marni Arnsellem, PhD, Topic Expert

  • Simply put, stress is a part of life for everyone, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. We feel triggered by circumstances as well as our perceptions of these circumstances. In many respects, the sensations that signal stress are adaptive; they alert us to potential threats and ready us to respond to danger. In reality, of course, many situations that put us on high alert don’t require this type of response. When physical or emotional responses are in overdrive, this can become exhausting, depleting (at best) in the short term, and can lead to multiple longer-term negative outcomes. The bottom line is stress will happen; how you deal with it is key.

So how can you best deal with stress? The good news is you have the ability to help yourself. Managing stress is a skill you can cultivate. The idea is not simply to figure out how to make it through the current situation, but to learn how to cope with stress in the future. To do this, start by asking yourself some questions. After you have a handle on what is going on, you’ll want to do something about it.

What’s Going On Inside of You?

If you want to react to stress differently, look inward. You will benefit from exploring why you are feeling this way and identifying possible t riggers. Doing so can help you better anticipate feeling this way in the future and mitigate the discomfort. Consider what about the stressful event is causing you to react this way, what your thoughts are about this stress, and whether this is how you typically think or respond when faced with similar situations.

Asking yourself these or similar questions may help you to gain insight into how you interpret or respond to stress and recognize any patterns. This can be further explored in therapy as well.

What Can You Do About the Problem?

Rather than trying to achieve the unattainable (eliminating stress from your life), train yourself to better cope with stress. One fundamental skill you may want to incorporate is learning to reframe negative messages you’ve been (often unknowingly) telling yourself. For example, when you sense yourself feeling the sensations of stress, which might automatically be associated with a sense of dread or panic, you may automatically think “here we go again” or “there is no way I can get a good grade on this paper/get a good night’s sleep/etc. if I’m this stressed!” These thoughts may lead to more distress, which is not ideal.

One fundamental skill you may want to incorporate is learning to reframe negative messages you’ve been (often unknowingly) telling yourself.

If you change how you think about the stress, you can change how you respond to it. For example, you can say to yourself, “This is my body helping me rise to this challenge.” Reframing negative thoughts may decrease your distress and produce better health outcomes.

In this example of a reframed thought, you’re also opening yourself up to accept the presence of stress. When you acknowledge and accept that stress is present, you may become more compassionate toward yourself. By recognizing the reality stress affects us all, and that the stress response is an automatic reaction to circumstance, you’re helping yourself conquer the negative self-talk that may accompany the body’s stress response. Recognizing there’s nothing wrong with you for feeling stressed can be powerful.

What Are You Doing to Build Up Your Reserves?

You may be more likely to ward off stress if you have strengthened your coping resources.  This is where both self-awareness and self-care are essential.

Knowing what makes you feel balanced—and practicing these acts—is key. Maintaining regular outlets for stress, whether it be through exercise, meditation, social outlets, or whatever else makes you feel good, is essential. Similarly, diet, hydration, and sleep all affect your ability to function in the face of stress. If you know you’ll be facing stress, preparation can help immensely.

Are You Reaching Out for Support?

In addition to being connected to our thoughts and emotions and practicing self-care, maintaining connection with others can be beneficial in stress management. This is but one of the many wonderful aspects of having a social network; when we need to let it all out, or if we have too much going on, there are people who can listen or provide assistance. How good does it feel to reach out to someone and receive what you need? When we reach out to others while under stress, we release the hormone oxytocin, which aids in recovery from stress. Engaging with others may aid in building resilience to stress.

In summary, stress management is a skill you can learn, either through honest reflection and effort on your own ornaided by therapy. Regardless of method, it’s a skill you will benefit from again and again.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marni Amsellem, PhD, therapist in Mamaroneck, New York.

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